The world’s oldest paper

My publisher at Green Writers Press is floating the idea of printing Old New Worlds on hemp—and my instinctive response of “oo!” has quickly turned to Google.

“Hemp hurds are favorable in comparison with those used with pulp wood.”

– Jason L. Merrill, U.S. Department of Agriculture chief scientist in 1916

Cultivation of industrial hemp for fiber
Photo credit: Aleks

So what on earth is a “hurd?” Actually, let’s go back even further, what exactly is hemp? Oh! Hemp is part of the Cannabis species. But before we get too excited, industrial hemp is evidently a different strain from the Cannabis-as-a-drug variety, which has greater amounts of that chemical that causes marijuana to affect your mind and/or behavior. And the industrial hemp hurd, then, is the inner core of the hemp plant stalk or stem, which they pulp to make paper.

Now, here is the really big takeaway: hemp is hugely environment friendly. It requires minimal care; it can adapt to most climates; and it is much more eco-friendly and sustainable than tree paper because it can be produced more quickly than trees—hemp stalks grow in 4 months, whereas trees take 20-80 years. This absolutely ties in with the ethos of Green Writers Press, whose mission is to print sustainably. Even now, their books are printed with soy-based inks on paper made from pulp that comes from post-consumer waste paper. The GWP motto is:

“What the localvore movement did for the food industry, we want to be for publishing.”

Declaration of Independence, draft one
Public Domain

And here’s the part I also really love about printing on hemp paper: it was the world’s first paper! The Ministry of Hemp site tells me that the first identified paper dates back to the early Western Han Dynasty—around 200-150 BC—and that, since then, hemp paper was used all across the world. The Gutenberg Bible, the first and second drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and the novels of Mark Twain were all printed on hemp paper. Then, in the 1930s, big synthetic textile companies and newspapers—going against the wisdom of Jason L. Merrill, quoted above—lobbied to prohibit the cultivation of hemp in the United States. And they succeeded.

So, let that not only be a lesson to us about dubious lobbying practices; let us also see if we can be part of the movement to turn the tide towards hemp paper again—along with indie publishers like Green Writers Press. I’d love to be part of that journey.

Outside In: Miguel de la Fuente

outside-inIn 1962, a nine-year-old boy named Miguel Lino de la Fuente Alfonso and his two sisters were sent by their parents, with the assistance of Catholic Charities, from Matanzas, Cuba, to the United States of America in one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children in history. An estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children were airlifted from 1960 to 1962 to different locations in the U.S. as part of the Peter Pan project. As Miguel explains, “Under the Castro regime, a communist government, children – like the land, industries, stores, and housing – would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.”

Once in the U.S., Miguel’s older sister was separated from him and his younger sister because she didn’t meet the age requirement of the Peter Pan project. So, although the two younger siblings were later reunited with their parents, they were never a complete family after 1962. “I did not come or was sent by my parents to chase the American dream for a better life,” says Miguel, “our life was just fine until it was taken away from us.” 

“Venceremos” oil, stucco Veneziano, shellac, gesso on paper 11 in x 14 in

Miguel has lived in three countries, seven U.S. States, an estimated seventeen cities, and countless residences. He now makes his home in Baltimore, where he works as a fine artist. He made this painting, Venceremos (meaning we will overcome), which shows his struggles to survive “the insurmountable challenge of using an unstable surface through the journey of applying incompatible materials, working each layer to compromise, morph, or dissipate.” He goes on to explain that through the complex experiences of loss, anxiety, fear, love, and happiness, the layers that are applied and removed to cover up, fix, or mask “create the beauty of never giving up.”

Ever since he remembers, Miguel has needed to be resilient. “Nothing is free. I have survived by trusting my instincts, being innovative, and never giving up.” In time, his immigrant status evolved from political refugee to U.S. Citizen, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “Not only have so many Cubans fought and risked their lives to be wards of this great country, but human citizens of the world,” he says. He feels so fortunate to be educated, established, and to have made the best of all opportunities. At the same time, he struggles to make sense of all that he is. “I do have regret, or guilt, that my parents risked so much; risk of imprisonment, being black-listed, and even their own lives threatened for us to be in a democratic country, but we don’t have a democracy in the U.S. There is censorship, class discrimination, and lack of education.”

For Miguel, the strangest part has been not to be able to identify with his Cuban culture; having his life interrupted and not having a consistent upbringing until he was reunited with his parents four years after coming to the U.S. Even so, he makes the most of having two cultures, like observing all the hallmark holidays with a Cuban twist. “Celebrating Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, eating Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie but also roast pork, black beans and flan; all the US holidays that always gave us an excuse to get the family together and share our favorite foods.”

But he’s wistful about the happiness, dreams, security, and quality of life that his family lost. “I wonder,” he says, “what our lives would have been if we stayed in Cuba.”

Six Degrees of Separation

The concept of six degrees of separation is endlessly fascinating. For the longest time, I have been putting off reading Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World. Joan Didion’s account of losing her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking made me feel hollowed out with sorrow, and I the-light-of-the-world-by-elizabeth-alexanderhadn’t even lost my mother or my brother in quick succession by then. I was nervous to open up the vulnerability of loss of a loved one in Alexander’s account. Her book turns out (I am about half way) to be so buoyant with love that I need not have worried. Yes, there is the paralyzing pain of grief, the trembling on the brink of tears every day for months on end, but the memoir is so shot through with love that this is the overriding emotion I am taking from it.

I know from her memoir that Alexander’s family is descended, in part, from African slaves, and I know that the love of her life, Ficre Ghebreyesus, was a political refugee from war-ravaged Eritrea in East Africa. Although I am not a poet, and am not of that world, I have picked up glancing references to Alexander over the years; most especially when she wrote and recited her poem, Praise Song for the Day, for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Today, I felt that urge, as I usually do when I feel a connection to a writer, to find out more. Thank you Wikipedia.

Imagine my surprise to discover that her first book of poetry is called The Venus Hottentot. “Hottentot,” the (now derogatory) term for the ancient Khoi people of South Africa, is a word and concept I grew up with. Wiki tells us that Alexander’s title “comes from Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman of the Khoikhoi ethnic group.” The “Venus Hottentot’s” story is yet another aching fragment of South Africa’s history, and this African American writer, who has drawn me into her world and emotions through her words, took something from my native country to make a piercing cri de coeur. This kind of looping connection make me feel as if there is, after all, a thread that links us in this chaotic life we live.

Telling stories


When Jessica Miles Henkin from The Stoop Storytelling Series emailed me out of the blue to ask if I would consider telling a story about my immigration experience at the Saturday, November 7th partnership show with the Baltimore Museum of Art, it took me about a quarter of second to respond that I would be thrilled to. The deal is that seven people get seven minutes each to tell a true, personal tale on a shared theme in front of a live audience. The truly wonderful thing is that Jessica and her partner, Laura Wexler, are building an oral history of Baltimore through their storytelling series. They’ve featured stories from hundreds of Baltimoreans, including Laura Lippman, “The Wire” creator David Simon, Congressman Elijah Cummings, BMA Director Doreen Bolger, and a host of “ordinary” folks.

The theme of this particular show was “Haven: Stories about finding, creating, and losing a home,” so yes, given my peripatetic existence, I did have a story to tell.  But preparing to tell it was another matter. As a former actor, I was used to getting up in front of an audience, but then I could hide behind someone else’s words and character. As a broadcaster, I had learned to be myself and speak off the cuff, but that was with factual soundbites. As a writer, I knew about narrative arc, but then you have all the time in the word to shape and craft to find just the right word and format. All of those things – acting, broadcasting, writing – helped, but spontaneous story telling was a new, and steep, learning curve.

Laura and Jessica couldn’t have been more supportive, affirming, and constructive in their guidance and presentation, and the best part was hearing the other storytellers, which included a refugee from Togo and someone who wants to make her life on Mars. Please enjoy our stories here.


Found objects

Look what I found, crumpled up and crammed behind the right drawer of my “new” writing desk!


Close inspection tells me that it is the Certificate of Birth for Baby Girl Seifert, Anne Louise, born November 3, 1933, to Joseph Nicholas (42) and Claire Wilmoth Schamberger (39) of 307 Cedarcroft Road in Baltimore. It is a copy from the Baltimore Bureau of Vital Records, and it’s dated June 11, 1951, which means the desk is at least that old. There are so many things I love about this: it gives me a tiny peek into the desk’s history; the baby girl’s name was spelled with an “e” as my sister spells hers; and the desk hasn’t travelled too far afield, since it has fetched up now in my studio in Homeland. One of these days, I will drive past 307 Cedarcroft Road and let my imagination wander.

When I wrote a post about Virginia Woolf’s belief in a room of one’s own [Channeling Virginia Woolf] I didn’t quite realize that the room is almost the least of it – the desk inside the room is the true touchstone. First, I experimented with an oak secretary desk. It is the first good piece of furniture I ever bought, in an antique store in Cape Town. It didn’t work, though, because I kept banging my knees on the cupboards underneath.


Next, I tried a gorgeous round, leather-topped table that had been passed on by our across-the-lane neighbors. But, as perfect as it is for actual writing, it is less perfect for the teetering piles of books and research papers that kept sliding off the rounded edges, so I had to think again.



At The Turnover Shop I found a marvelous piece that reminded me of one of those old campaign desks that fold up on themselves. I brought it home and loved it … but then, gradually, it also presented problems, in the form of tendonitis, because it was made for writing on pieces of paper not for typing on a laptop, and my wrists were left dangling in mid-air. It broke my heart, but I had to give up on that one too.

It was back to The Turnover Shop where I saw a desk that was the perfect dimension – but it was painted, and I’ve tended to have a bit of an aversion to painted wood. Except that now my stylish niece has been collecting shabby chic furniture that looks terrific. So I took a chance. After a day of lung clogging scraping and sanding and distressing, I believe I have finally hit the mark. Now, I sit by the window at my old-new writing desk, dreaming and imagining and thinking – in the crevices of the actual writing – as I look out on the trees and the comings and goings along the lane. Doves come to perch on the window sill to coo, and I feel that I have found a little nest of my own.

Version 2


Are You Smart Enough to Be a Citizen?


I came across an article in The Atlantic, which begins like this:

To become a citizen of the United States, naturalizing immigrants must take a test. Many native-born Americans would fail this test. Indeed, most of us have never really thought about what it means to be a citizen. One radical idea from the immigration debate is the repeal of birthright citizenship—guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment—to prevent so-called anchor babies. Odious and constitutionally dubious as this proposal may be, it does prompt a thought experiment: What if citizenship were not, in fact, guaranteed by birth? What if everyone had to earn it upon turning 18, and renew it every 10 years, by taking an exam? What might that exam look like?

You can take the exam here:

I missed a score of citizenship attained, with distinction by one point 😦
Out of interest, here are the questions I really had for my citizenship interview:

Who has the right to declare war in the U.S.? 

What is the supreme law of the land? 

How many Senators are there in Congress?

What is the highest branch of the Judiciary in the Government? 

Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

What was the 49th state added to the Union?

When was the Declaration of Independence adopted? 

In what month do we vote for President? 

Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? 

How did you do? Here are the answers:


The Constitution.


The Supreme Court.

Patrick Henry.


July 4, 1776. 


All people living in the United States.
(This was the only one I missed; I said “citizens of the United States,” and was glad to be corrected.)

Truth to tell, my exam was not as difficult as the Atlantic one, but still some of my friends made the same point: I needed to know a lot more about our country than natural born citizens are required to do.

Philip Glass on reading in Baltimore

From By the Book with American composer, Philip Glass, in this week’s New York Times Book Review:

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?

My mother was a professional librarian. By the time we were 7 or 8 we all had our library cards from Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Every Friday, my sister, my brother and I would go there and get our books for the week.

I especially love this, given the valiant way that the branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library that was at the epicenter of the riots in Baltimore last Monday stayed open, offering shelter and support.

Carla Hayden CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore MD
Carla Hayden CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore MD

“I Am an Immigrant”

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My friend, Charles Whaley (via James Whyte), posted these pictures on FaceBook. The accompanying comment is, “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, making a massive contribution to our society.” It warmed my heart.

The organization behind the poster campaign is called Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) and @NoXenophobia. It is based in the U.K. but the issues, of course, are universal – the current resurgence of violent xenophobia in South Africa is simply heartbreaking.

I was speaking the other day to a journalist who was doing a write-up of Beyond the Baobab, and he asked me about anti-immigrant feeling. I do understand that countries can’t just indiscriminately open their borders to all comers, but it is true that those of us who are driven enough to undertake the mammoth process of immigration are likely to carry that drive into our immigrant lives to make a contribution to our societies. These are just a few of the people on a Forbes list of “Immigrants Who Made It Big” in the U.S. – Madeleine Albright, Czechoslovakia; Charlize Theron, South Africa; Mikhail Baryshnikov, USSR; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austria; Elie Wiesel, Romania; Michael J. Fox, Canada. I rest my case, as I climb down from my soap box.

More thoughts on the immigrant theme

Time has published a list of “29 Books That Will Enrich Your Inner Literati”

Getty Images
Getty Images


Naturally, this segment of the list caught my attention (no nonfiction books listed yet):

Immigrant Experience (U.S./U.K.): ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.

  • Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): say hello to our recent Indian arrivals! (For our tea-drinking cousins across the pond, try Monica Ali’sBrick Lane.)
  • Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan): the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan’s possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin’s Waiting–and yes, there’s a lot of longing and waiting there.)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez): how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.